The Screenwriter: The Good, the Bad & the Nutty
This originally appeared in “The 3rd Degree,” published by the Mystery Writers of America
Mystery Novelist Becomes Screenwriter…for a While
By Paul Levine
I came to Hollywood for the health insurance.
That’s right. I lusted after cheap meds, not fame and fortune, when I migrated from Miami to Hollywood in 1999. And why not? A doctor’s visit costs ten bucks at the industry-subsidized Bob Hope Health Center. I quickly learned, however, that a screenwriter pays dues in ways that a mystery novelist does not.
Jack Warner, of Warner Bros., famously referred to his writing staff as “shmucks with Underwoods.” (Today we would say “schmucks with laptops.” Then, there’s this delicious quote from Wikipedia: “No education is required to become a professional screenwriter, just good storytelling abilities and imagination.”
Before I traveled west, I thought Hollywood writers rolled into work around 11 a.m., scribbled for a couple hours, drank their lunch at Musso and Frank’s, then cracked wise with starlets the rest of the day. Like Rick, who came to Casablanca for the waters, I was misinformed.
I quickly learned that a screenwriter for a television drama is a skilled craftsman who works damn hard, sometimes all night while cameras roll. The writing itself is tougher than it looks. One-hour dramas employ the same classic three-act structure as plays and novels. Yes, it’s still the dramatic form advocated by Aristotle. Act one is exposition; act two is complication; and act three is resolution.
HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER: “Aristotle said that? Get me his agent.”
An overriding factor in television writing is the restraint of time. Want to write a one-hour drama? After commercials, you’ve got less than 43 minutes. (If you go back 25 years or so to Hill Street Blues, you’ll have five minutes more show and five minutes fewer commercials. In TV, that’s an entire C-story, often a character-driven, humorous sub-plot that’s more fun to write than the A-story).
In one-hour network television, a screenwriter has about 55 pages to tell her tale, and the form requires punch-outs for the end of the Teaser and each of four acts. (Acts 2 and 3 comprise the Aristotelian second act, the “epitasis,” or complication). With such a rigid format, stream-of-consciousness writers need not apply.
Oldest Rookie Screenwriter in Town
I sneaked into TV at such an advanced age, 51, that the Christian Science Monitor dubbed me the “oldest rookie writer in Hollywood.” I had already been a newspaper reporter, a trial lawyer, and a novelist, so I have a track record of either taking on new challenges or being unable to hold a job, depending on your point-of-view.
I began doubting the sanity of this latest move my first day on the Paramount Pictures lot. My dungeon of an office in the Clara Bow Building overlooked a Dumpster behind the commissary, and my window air conditioner whined like an F-14 taking off from an aircraft carrier. The carpet smelled of mildew, and the joint hadn’t been painted since the “It Girl,” starred in Dangerous Curves.
Years earlier, as a lawyer, I enjoyed a view of Bimini from the penthouse of a high rise on Miami’s Biscayne Bay and lunched on stone crabs and passion fruit iced tea at the Bankers’ Club. Later, as my own boss, I wrote eight novels at home in Coconut Grove, parrots squawking in a bottlebrush tree outside. Now, with kamikaze horseflies from the Dumpster smashing into my window, I was low man on a staff of six writers. As well I should have been. When I got to Hollywood, I didn’t know a smash cut from a cold cut. How did I get here, anyway?
I’d been bitten by the Hollywood bug when the late Stephen J. Cannell produced an NBC movie-of-the-week from one of my Jake Lassiter books in 1995. (The multi-talented Cannell was more than a screenwriter. While he probably wrote and produced more hours of television drama than anyone in history, he always insisted that his first love was novel writing).
I started dabbling in Hollywood long-distance. I wrote an action-adventure feature for Cannell’s company. Think “Die Hard” in a missile silo. If you don’t like the thought, that’s okay. No one else did, either. I wrote a computer hacker pilot for ABC. Five similar pilots were commissioned by the networks that season; none got on the air. I wrote a World War II mini-series for CBS, which also remains unproduced. I was beginning to learn of a world where screenwriters were unionized and got paid even though their work was shelved – literally – stacked on shelves with hundreds of other dusty scripts.
I also free-lanced two episodes of JAG, the CBS military drama. Those were produced and aired, and I had the peculiar sensation of listening to actors read my words aloud.
Screenwriter:”Yikes! He ruined the joke by hitting the wrong word.”
When Don Bellisario, the creator of JAG, offered me a staff position, I considered the alternatives. Stay in Miami with the mosquitoes and no book deal. Or go to L.A. and get a paycheck plus that free health insurance. Goodbye mosquitoes. Hello coyotes. (The four-legged scavengers, not Hollywood agents). Since moving to a hillside home in Studio City, I’ve written 21 episodes of JAG, which means I’ve logged more time in the military than President Bush.
With Bellisario, I also co-created a short-lived show, First Monday, a drama set at the Supreme Court. The show, based loosely on my novel 9 Scorpions, gave me the opportunity to work with James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning, three terrific actors. In fact, the entire cast was fine. But we, the producers and writers, failed when we tried to jazz up the stories.
In reality, most of the drama at the Supreme Court takes place in the Justices’ minds. The Sturm und Drang we invented, a world of Desperate Justices, didn’t ring true. Still, we might have been a hit, if not for pathetic ratings, lousy reviews, and dead-on-arrival demographics: most of our viewers were between 55 and dead. After 13 episodes, we were buried in the slag heap of cancelled shows.
No Longer a Rookie, Screenwriter Pitches
I then set about pitching new shows to the networks and interviewing at existing shows that might want to employ the oldest not-quite rookie in Hollywood. Amazingly, my talents were found to be resistible. The low point of that era: I interviewed for a staff position on a show to be shot in Miami, where I lived for 30 years, practiced law for 17 years and where I based 8 novels. An executive producer asked a single question: “Do you know the club scene on South Beach?”
So was the Hollywood screenwriter experience all bad? As we said on JAG: “Permission to speak freely, Sir?”
Actually, there were many satisfying moments. While nearly every screenwriter remains anonymous outside the industry, an actor’s compliment on a script or several warm and fuzzy e-mail from viewers mean that someone has noticed your work. The very speed of the process – weeks, not years – from page to screen, makes the medium more intense and immediate than publishing. Then there’s the knowledge that 15 to 20 million people are paying various degrees of attention to a story you created out of a thin air. (Moments later, of course, your story vanishes into thin air).
Something else, too, something I never anticipated. Being a screenwriter for television dramas sharpened my prose skills. I believe my writing is leaner, my plotting tighter, my dialogue zippier. And let’s not forget those regular paychecks plus pension and health benefits. Thanks to the Writers Guild of America, green envelopes mysteriously arrive in your mailbox. It’s heady for the rookie, receiving checks for re-runs, cable syndication, foreign rights, character payments, program fees, and creator’s fees. I still don’t know what some of those terms mean, but the checks cleared all the same.
So what drove me back to the book world? All I can say is that I sat down to write a spec novel shortly after my last pitch meeting. I recall the meeting in cinematic detail.
INT. OFFICE, UNIVERSAL PICTURES LOT – DAY
The Screenwriter pitches the Showrunner, hoping for an assignment to write an episode of Tremors, a low-budget Sci-Fi channel show in which giant worms terrorize a town by eating various inhabitants.
The worm falls in love with the waitress.
A King Kong set-up. Love rocks the worm’s world.
Worms don’t fall in love.
They don’t grow fifty feet long and blow up
buildings either, but that hasn’t stopped you.
Thanks for coming in.
Yes, I have returned to the excruciating yet exhilarating task of storytelling with only the written word. As I type these words, I’m anticipating publication of “Solomon vs. Lord,” a battle-of-the-sexes courtroom dramedy, the first of a four-book series for Bantam. So, have I deserted Hollywood? I’m not sure. It’s pitch season at the networks, and I’m wondering: The new book is sort of Adam’s Rib meets Moonlighting. Wouldn’t it make a terrific new TV series?
LEARNING CURVE: LESSONS OF NETWORK TV
Some things I learned quickly, or not so quickly, in writing for network television:
The biggest difference between writing your novel and writing for television is that it’s your novel. It takes well more than 100 people to put on a network show. Not only that, you’re bound by every prior episode, every plot and subplot, and every personality trait already established for the characters. You have an original voice? Great. Use it in your novels. In television, your job is to mimic the voice of the show’s creator.
In a book, you write a scene in which a freighter sinks in a typhoon. No problem. Do your research and conjure up 50-foot waves. In a television show that shoots in eight days on a tight budget, you’ll likely lose the typhoon and the freighter. Instead, you’ll write a scene in an office where two characters discuss the nasty storm that sunk the ship offscreen.
You’ll get notes on your scripts from a number of people you’ve never met: network and studio executives, technical advisors, actors, sometimes the spouse of the showrunner. Absolutely true story: In ER’s early days, a network executive gave this note: “Does there have to be so much medicine?” The process brings to mind David Mamet’s famous line: “Film is a collaborative medium. Bend over.”
— Paul Levine, former screenwriter